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Have You Played? is an endless stream of game retrospectives. One a day, every day of the year, perhaps for all time.>
I know that sounds like asking “have you eaten bread?” or “ever had a crush?”, but Have You Played’s purpose is far more to inspire discussion after the fact, or prompt a replay, than it is as a buyer’s guide for someone with an empty gaming plate.
I’ve got two VR headsets in my inappropriately small home, and I spend more time feeling guilty that I’m not using them than I do using them. Conceptually I love the tech, and I sporadically have a fine time with ‘experiences’ – i.e. virtual tourism to real or made-up places – when it comes to games-games I’m yet to get all that much out of it. But what about non-VR games rendered after-the-fact in VR? Could this be the full-fat virtual reality gaming I’d imagined when these headsets were first announced? … [visit site to read more]
So I can’t play the original BioShock because I can’t deal with injections at all. I played Binfinite, though, and that was better, although I think some of the DLC is perhaps not my cup of tea in terms of icky moments. That’s why I’m now watching the BioShock: The Collection Remastered [official site] trailer through my fingers, ready to cover my eyes at any moment should a needle make a sudden appearance:
In Why I Love, PC Gamer writers pick an aspect of PC gaming that they love and write about why it's brilliant. This week, Sam enjoys the madness of Spec Ops: The Line.
Uncharted is voice-and-mo-cap actor Nolan North s most famous work, casting him as Whedonesque, likeable treasure hunter Nathan Drake. One common criticism of that PlayStation hero is that he s presented as a positive, empathetic protagonist who experiences no trauma from his actions, despite gunning down hundreds of baddies. That s now a very tired point, but it s also why his casting as Captain Walker in 2012 s Spec Ops: The Line was such a smart call.
Walker starts that game as an action hero too, sent into sandstorm-ravaged Dubai to find out what s happened to former brother-in-arms John Konrad and his battalion, the Damned 33rd. That s all the mission is supposed to be: reconnaissance. But under your control and against orders, Walker engages with the conflict playing what he thinks is the role of the hero, despite never being fully aware of the facts. It s soon apparent that the 33rd s methods aren t sound, and that at the very least they re torturing CIA agents and firing on other soldiers. Stopping them is not your job, but Walker and his gung-ho pals decide it is, for the greater good. No wonder this game seems to have generated more think pieces than copies sold.
It was the noisy release of the PlayStation s Uncharted 4 that got me thinking about Spec Ops again. Nolan North was a subversive casting choice who better to portray a protagonist who kills as many people as a typical videogame hero, but exists in a context where those actions finally have consequences? This meta commentary was not deliberate: North worked on the game for four years, right from the pre-production stage, which may explain why Walker s increasingly weathered rage and gradual disassociation with reality is so convincingly played. What accidental good fortune, that the actor behind one of gaming s most well-known icons plays someone who tries to be a hero, but comprehensively fails.
Spec Ops is essentially an adaptation of Heart of Darkness, as the name John Konrad suggests. Heavier inspiration comes from Apocalypse Now, itself an adaptation of the same work. In all versions of this story, the protagonist is sent to track down a colleague who has gone off the reservation. That journey takes them through a strange land, where the circumstances and environment become stranger the closer the hero gets to their target, a process represented perfectly by the river in both the book and Apocalypse Now. The quarry in each story is found to be playing god over their new domain, succumbed to a form of madness created by the circumstances of their surroundings.
I think Spec Ops is as valid and interesting an adaptation of this story as Apocalypse Now. It lacks the river as a metaphor for the journey, but it s cleverly molded around the tropes of third-person shooters, leaving just enough control to make you feel complicit. It plays on your desire to press the trigger at any opportunity, and even breaks the fourth wall during a turret section to comment on repetition in these games. But more so than Apocalypse Now where Willard s journey to Kurtz morphs him from the army s reluctant assassin into a man who no longer associates himself with the army at all Spec Ops is Walker s journey into becoming Kurtz.
Do you feel like a hero yet? Konrad asks in the game s finale, after hours of wearying, increasingly violent firefights against the 33rd and everyone else in Dubai. You spend the game thinking you re chasing the warlord of Dubai down, but you re turning into him. With every reckless action, with every disobeyed order, with every instance you pull the trigger even when the game doesn t make you do it you re accelerating that transformation. The ending underlines that notion in a pointed, metaphorical way, explaining the horrific reality of what Walker has brought upon Dubai, and finally detaching him from the selfdelusional sense of heroism that s powered him through to this final moment. The ending offers choices that result in four possible outcomes, but it s hard to believe there s anything left of Walker, no matter which path you pick. I chose an ending where he simply walks away from the chaos, as close to a good ending as this bleak finale allows.
Spec Ops left me emotionally exhausted. I think the first thing I played after finishing it was Sonic 2, just to cleanse my palate a bit, since it s a little lighter on the dehumanising effects of war. The carnage deliberately goes on for slightly too long in Spec Ops. It beats you down, tires you out, in an effort to make your own state of mind align with Walker s. No other game has tried anything like it, and as a result it s one of the only cover shooters I d recommend without question.
Last month I spent four hours playing Civilization VI on a very hot day in central London. I came away wishing I could play for another four hundred hours, and also wishing that I had an ice cream. Mint and choc chip preferably.
Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what Civ VI is doing and how its many systems create a brilliant competitive race through history while also producing some weird tensions around the idea of what a civilization actually is in the context of the game. Are cultures defined by the choices they make, by their surroundings, their neighbours, by determination or by chance? Whatever the answer might be, one thing is sure: Cleopatra hates> me.
Last September, I went to the Firaxis offices when they were in the fairly late stages of polishing XCOM 2. I met Jake Solomon there and showed him what XCOM: Enemy Unknown modding looked like. He wondered aloud if I had closets full of chains and leather.
John Lumpkin, otherwise known as JohnnyLump, is the co-creator of XCOM: Enemy Unknown s ultra-difficult Long War a mod that adds a slew of surplus stats, extra weapons, more campaign missions, more challenges, more squad members and, inevitably, more death to the original game. To those those uninitiated, Jake Solomon Enemy Unknown s creative director once described Firaxis official top-selling reimagining of Julian Gollop s 1994 turn-based classic as a 20-hour tutorial for Long War, which gives a sense of how comprehensive Lumpkin and partner Rachel Norman s hobbyist modification is.
Lumpkin tells me that he in fact doesn t keep a cupboard-full of S&M accessories at home not that there s anything wrong with that but that Solomon s tongue-in-cheek reference points to how inaccessible Enemy Unknown is to would-be modders. First you re required to essentially hack into the game s files to make it read INI files, Lumpkin says. Then you need to review the game s code, translate it into hexadecimal, before making changes to functions and classes so as to ensure your alterations don t crash the game. Lumpkin pauses, as if suddenly aware of how confusing this might sound to those unfamiliar with programming jargon.
It s strange, he says. I had 12 hours of computer science in college, my training was primarily as a journalist, but it gets to the point where you know the scene in The Matrix where Neo is looking at the code falling? You get to that point where you can start reading the code and you can see the Unreal script that it makes. It s a weird place for your head to get to but it can get there.
Getting there saw Lumpkin sinking two to three hours a day into his pet project as a distraction from studying at grad school media studies with a side of political science and international relations back in 2012. He d often have to force himself to pursue his dissertation, and admits partner Norman, when away from her job working in the US defence industry, almost certainly spent more time on the coding side of things as the project s engineer.
Although inspired by UFO: Enemy Unknown (XCOM: UFO Defense in the US) at 43 and 42 respectively, both Lumpkin and Norman are self-proclaimed veterans of the old days the idea for Long War was born from the simple fact that Lumpkin had finished the 2012 remake, wanted more, but couldn t find anything user-made in the game s small but growing community. He took matters into his own hands and, with the help of Norman, began to push the envelope on what was possible.
It kind of grew organically but as we figured out how to do something like how to add new weapons or how to have aliens upgrade themselves, we d add these new capabilities and release a new version, says Lumpkin. The Enemy Unknown campaign was 35 or 40 missions and I had a great time playing it and then it was over. I wanted more of the feel of warfare in terms of these great victories but also reversals that you have to address.
If you think of American sports we have NFL football here, where it s a 16-game season and every game is a big deal that have huge effects on your season. I wanted to switch that to make it a bit more like baseball, which has 160-odd games in a season and is much more about performance over the long term and statistics. I always thought of what we did to XCOM a little like that Enemy Unknown was the football season and we made it more like the baseball season with ups and downs and variety of challenges.
Before long, the ever-burgeoning Enemy Unknown community began to take notice of Long War. A healthy body of brave players had started playing, offering feedback and in essence became Lumpkin and Norman s QA team. Beta versions received tens of thousands of Nexus downloads courtesy of its barrel-load of new stuff, and it was discussed favourably by the games press. One of my real pleasures from all of this was going on Reddit or the Nexus feedback and watching people debate strategy in a real productive way, adds Lumpkin. There was nothing toxic about it, these were people having these really interesting discussions and it was so fun to read.
About mid-way through development, Jake Solomon started tweeting about his enjoyment of Long War. Julian Gollop praised the unofficial expansion during presentations. Eventually, first contact was made with Firaxis by way of its community manager Kevin Schultz. One of the things players wanted was soldiers not to sound like they re from Iowa, says Lumpkin, before explaining Jonathan Emmett, the mod s sound editor, had just figured out how to implement new voice packs.
They had enlisted volunteer voice actors from the UK, Australia, and the US, and had turned character Peter Van Doorn who appears briefly in Enemy Unknown with a great gung-ho delivery of his lines into a soldier that could be added to the game. Schultz reached out and said: hey, we ve got some leftover lines from that voice actor, do you want them? We said, you bet, and were able to make a custom voice pack for this particular character.
By early 2015, the Long War team had grown to a small core group of four, as well as four senior contributors, and, behind the scenes, Firaxis had begun work on XCOM 2 a direct follow-up to 2012 s Enemy Unknown that would make modding a priority by boasting day one mods and Steam Workshop support from launch. It was looking for help in this area, therefore publisher 2K reached out to Lumpkin, put him and his team under NDA and asked that they take the helm of three day one mods.
While working towards Long War 1.0, Lumpkin had also begun flirting with the idea of creating his own game Terra Invicta: another alien invasion-inspired game on a strategic level, that he planned to crowdfund down the line. He was, however, delighted to receive official recognition. What s more, this was immediate paying work. It was a chance to see all the procedures and processes involved in how a game is made, and to learn about proper QA and all of the different roles. In short: this was the Long War team s education.
In August 2015, Long War Studios was formed, it brought on an artist adding art to Enemy Unknown was very difficult, Lumpkin recalls and set about crafting the agreed XCOM 2 day one mods, while working on Long War s final release in the background. The latter launched its version 1.0 last December, while Long War s first batch of XCOM 2 mods went live on launch day; with a second and third lot releasing in April and July too.
We had this big list of ideas and had a bit of a back and forth with them, explains Lumpkin when I ask if Long War s creative freedom was sacrificed in this new, non-hobbyist setup. We asked what they wanted and they suggested the kind of things they were after for these day one mods. We threw some specifics at them and they thought it sounded great. If there was any freedom sacrificed on the creative side it was more to do with things like deadlines than it was us being told what to do.
They wanted to show off these modding tools, and we were conscious of that therefore came up with things that showed off different kinds of things you could do within the time frame that we had. There s an approval process, of course and a bit of further back and forth.
To this day, there are still but a few hundred mods available for XCOM: Enemy Unknown, not to mention no Steam Workshop support. XCOM 2 s Steam Workshop, however, boasts 1,994 at the time of writing testament to how more accessible this game is to prospective modders of all levels. Long War Studios still plans to pursue Terra Invicta down the line, something which seems a certainty now off the back of the Long War mod s reception, and what the team has learned from its work on XCOM 2.
I therefore ask Lumpkin if we can expect a Long War 2 mod for XCOM 2 at any point in the future.
We certainly know how we d do it, he says before pausing. And that s probably the most I can say right now.
“Day 4. I’ve looked everywhere, but I can’t find anything to eat or a clue to get me off the ship. Just… more audiologs! They’re everywhere! For some reason I keep listening to every minute of every one thinking there’ll be some useful information but… they’re just filler! Filler that’s driving me to madness!”> – South Park: The Stick Of Truth
It’s hard to argue. They’re kinda dumb. But I’m still fond of this stupid little trope.
The Long War is one of the great mods, expanding Firaxis’ XCOM reboot in ways that called back to the campaign of the original game while also building on what was brilliant in the new version. The team behind it formed a studio and are now working on their own aliens vs Earth game, Terra Invicta, as well as Firaxis-approved mods for XCOM 2 [official site]. The first set of mods arrived on launch day and two more appeared a couple of days ago. One of them is good, the other is spectacular.
I made a silent promise to myself that I wouldn’t post every single new leader/civ reveal for Civilization VI [official site] because, really, do you need a video to tell you that France is likely to have some big cultural advantages based around museums, and that Japan might have its own warrior code, and cities that enjoy the benefits that come from island life and seafood? The Egyptian video is a good one though, teasing out some details of the new adjacency bonuses for improvements, and the ways that early game strengths might change through the course of a campaign.